A Dark Cloud Over Kenya

Dana Hughes, part of our recent expansion of reporters stationed around the globe, blogs from Nairobi:

I've really enjoyed the three months I've been reporting from Nairobi, Kenya. I've made good friends, seen incredible stories and have quelled my homesickness for political news in the United States, by getting caught up in Kenya's "election fever."

So it's with great sadness (and a little fear) that I am watching this country I have grown to love descend into chaos. Just four days ago I was in a bar with people of all tribes --including the Kikuyu, the powerful tribe of President Mwai Kibaki, who was sworn in for a second term Sunday, and the Luo, the historically marginalized tribe of challenger Raila Odinga -- watching the national election results come in with great excitement. I felt like I was back in the states at an election party.

But how wrong I was. As the days wore on, it became clear that this presidential election and its aftermath were very different than in the United States. The stakes were high. A defeat for Kibaki would be the first time in the nation's 44-year history since independence that the ballot unseated an incumbent president; that's something virtually unheard of in Africa.

But there was a palpable feeling that Kenyans didn't quite trust the democratic system. As presidential election results slowed to a trickle, questions emerged: Why were parliamentary results coming out at a reasonable pace, but not presidential results?  Why were the vote numbers for Odinga (known as Raila), largely predicted by polls across the country to win the election, stalled? Kenyans became impatient as they waited for answers, believing that the election was being rigged for a Kibaki win. Before I knew it, I was seeing plumes of black smoke from my apartment window coming from Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya and Odinga's constituency. Local media started showing pictures of rioting and looting across the country. Reports of ethnic violence against Kikuyus also surfaced.

As a journalist, my first instinct was to grab my camera and go to Kibera, a place I had reported from on Election Day. But I didn't make it to Kibera -- it just wasn't safe. For one reason, I couldn't find a driver willing to take me! But another, more serious reason is that I am constantly mistaken for being Kikuyu.

It's not uncommon here for people to actually think I studied in the United States and have returned "home" to Kenya. Ordinarily, I really like that I am thought to be Kenyan. It helps my reporting, gives me more insight into the lives of ordinary Kenyans and I think it has helped me make friends more quickly. But in this case, when political clashes are expressed with ethnic violence, looking Kenyan and from the "wrong" tribe, can get me seriously hurt.

At first I didn't take this threat seriously. After all, I had been in Kibera just a few days earlier with no problems, right? But then people were excited and hopeful about voting. And I had been with a group of foreign journalists -- including a French woman -- so I was clearly identified as a journalist. Even so, people were suspicious of me until I started talking with my very American accent. But going now would be risky. In a mob situation, rioters don't usually stop to check your accent. All of my Kenyan friends, including those who work in local television, strongly urged me not to put myself in that much danger, and in the end I listened to them.

Today, the day after an election that is widely believed by EU observers, foreign press and most importantly Kenyans, to have been stolen, there is a dark cloud over Nairobi.  Not just from the smoke coming from neighborhoods now in flames, but from a feeling expressed by my Kenyan friends who just a week ago took pride in the fact that Kenya was one Africa's leaders in peace and political stability, and are now asking in disbelief, "What is happening to our country?"

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